paul simon on songwriting --9/29/17

Today's selection -- from The 60s, "Simon & Garfunkel" by James Stevenson. A 1967 conversation with Paul Simon, who wrote such hits as "The Sound of Silence," "Mrs. Robinson," and "Bridge Over Troubled Water," about songwriting:

"Writing is often an excruciating process. I've been work­ing on one song for three months now. In the past, I could go faster, but I wouldn't accept those songs now. Now I say, 'No. It's got to be framed right,' and I spend months. Every time I pick up the guitar, I start on the song. When I go to sleep, I spend half an hour thinking about it. Songs get stagnant, and they turn on me. Lines that were good you begin to discard. I use the guitar. I grab a chord, and then I'm into something. My early songs were derivative. I was influenced by so many people. Elvis Presley in­fluenced me to play the guitar; the Everly Brothers influenced our singing; Bob Dylan ... Later, these merge with your personality. I use less imagery now, less metaphor. I give you the picture, stretch it, and let you feel it. When your mind is about to turn off, I try and get a word or a line that's different, so you snap back. If I lose the guy, I don't get him back. I want to make the words rich and yet plain -- tasteful without being prissy or too delicate. One word can throw it off. It's not poetry. I'm writing sounds that must be sung, and heard sung. I'm conscious of the medium I'm working in.

"What should be said in a song? What would be better said in an essay? A song is an impression when it's heard only once. Of course, sometimes I make a song purely an impression, like 'Feelin' Groovy.' I think: Yellow ... pink ... blue ... bubbles ... gurgle ... happy. The line 'I'm dappled and drowsy' -- it doesn't make sense. I just felt dappled. Sleepy, con­tented. The song only runs one minute and twenty-nine seconds, with a long fadeout. When you've made your impression, stop. I don't want the audience to have time to think. It's a happy song, and that's what it was. There's the other kind of song, like 'The Dangling Conversation.' It's intricately worked out. Every word is picked on purpose. Maybe it's English-major stuff, but if you haven't caught the symbolism, you haven't missed anything, really. You've got to keep people moving. The attention span is very limited. People don't listen carefully. Unless you jolt 'em, it's going to be down the drain. You've got to get the right mixture of sound and words. I write about the things I know and observe.

"I can look into people and see scars in them. These are the people I grew up with. For the most part, older people. These people are sensitive, and there's a desperate quality to them -- everything is beating them down, and they become more aware of it as they become older. I get a sense they're thirty-three, with an aware­ness that 'Here I am thirty-three!' and they probably spend a lot of afternoons wondering how they got there so fast. They're edu­cated, but they're losing, very gradually. Not realizing, except for just an occasional glimpse. They're successful, but not happy, and I feel that pain. They've got me hooked because they are people in pain. I'm drawn to these people, and driven to write about them. In this country, it's painful for people to grow old. When sexual attractiveness is focussed on a seventeen-year-old girl, you must feel it slipping away if you're a thirty-three-year-old woman. So you say, 'I'm going to stop smoking. I'm going to get a suntan. I'm going on a diet. I'm going to play tennis.' What's intriguing is that they are just not quite in control of their destiny. Nobody is paying any attention to these people, because they're not crying very loud."



Henry Finder


The 60s: The Story of a Decade


Random House


Copyright 2016 by The New Yorker Magazine


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